The Times, 1 August 2009


There's only one question comedians ask each other, from March till the summer: are you doing Edinburgh? They are a class of people for whom the city isn't a place, but is rather the month between July and September. For the best part of a decade, I was the same. I did a few package shows there with friends, three acts and a compere for a fiver. Then I did five solo shows there, from 2002 to 2006. It literally never occurred to me that you could do anything else with the summer. If you're a comedian, and you want to get away from endless pub gigs and club nights, you have to do the festival. It is, or at least it can be, career-changing. You could be scouted by TV companies, booked for radio shows, or perhaps have a full-scale nervous collapse live onstage during the first week, and be spoken of in hushed tones for the rest of the month. Whichever way things go, your career will definitely change.

But market forces have made the Edinburgh Festival almost unworkable for the next generation of comics. Over the last decade, it has become painfully, impossibly expensive. I first went to Edinburgh in 1994, as a student. My friend Kara and I blagged a lift with her dad, stayed in a youth hostel, and saw twenty shows in four days. The whole trip - food, booze, shows, thank-you-for-the-lift-cheese - cost about £200. Now, comedy shows by people you've never heard of cost £12 or more, for an hour. If the comedian has made a fleeting appearance on Mock The Week, or some loathsome Channel 4 sketch show where the merest notion of two men having sex with each other is both as hilarious and risqué as it was in the mid-70s, the ticket price will be higher still. Comedy fans can no longer afford to go and see more than one, or at most two shows in an evening, and the days of racing from one sweatpit venue to another are gone. On the plus side, this does mean that you can avoid the trauma of queuing outside in the freezing rain, then sweating profusely in a sauna-like room for an hour, before repeating the whole process thirty minutes later. As Rich Hall once pointed out: visiting Edinburgh can feel a lot like having malaria. And that's before you add in the gin.

The ticket prices are certainly too high, but the real problem is that the audiences are having a far cheaper night out than the comedians. A solo show in a tiny, 55-seater venue is where most stand-ups begin their Edinburgh careers. Even if they sell out every show, they will still be losing at least £5k and more likely £10k. The cost of putting on a show is vast - production companies (who negotiate your venue, organise the posters and flyers, sort out your flat and so on) usually charge about £2000. The PRs charge anything from hundreds to thousands of pounds. The venues require hefty guarantees to cover the box office, technicians and door staff. And the rent for a month in Edinburgh used to cost me almost exactly double what it cost me to live in Islington the rest of the year. I was lucky enough to have a sponsor for my solo shows there, or it would certainly have been cheaper to stay in London, invite fifty people round mine every night, perform my show to them, give them each twenty quid and send them home.

Of course, comedians don't need to pay for all of that. They can find their own venues, and flat-shares, they can do their own flyering and their own PR. Tie cymbals between their legs and they could do their own play-in music too. But if you've worked for several months on a show, you want it to be seen. The average audience for a Fringe show is, I believe, five. Even when you include all those empty houses for the puppet version of Medea, those aren't good stats for a performer. Besides, I once flyered the same man every day in Edinburgh for a month. He never came to the show, and one day, I asked why he still wanted to take a flyer each time. He looked at me hard, and said he was putting them up, one by one, on his bedroom wall, but they kept falling down. I didn't ask what adhesive he was using. I'm happier not knowing.

All of this expense would still be worthwhile, if newer comedians could really get noticed, as they could in the 90s. The winners of the Perrier Best Newcomer Award (given to someone doing their first full-length Edinburgh show) that decade include Harry Hill, Tim Vine, Milton Jones and The Mighty Boosh. These acts were deserved cult hits from their first outings in Edinburgh, and whatever costs they ran up doing their early shows have, I'm sure, been paid off with TV and radio money earned since, all because they took a gamble on the festival and it paid off.

But it was much easier for new comics to attract attention then, because the biggest names in stand-up didn't do Edinburgh. Comedians used to serve their time at the festival: do three or four years, build an audience, move into telly, tour big concert venues, and never look back. If you could sell out the Hammersmith Apollo, for example, you most probably wouldn't bother to go back to Edinburgh and do a month in a 350-seater venue. But over the past few years, a succession of huge venues have been added to the Fringe roster, and many big names are going to Scotland: Alistair McGowan is doing a full run, Janeane Garofalo will be there for a couple of weeks, Ricky Gervais will only be doing one night, but to 3000 people.

Audiences, quite understandably, would rather stake their money (up to £30 for Gervais) on someone they know they like, instead of risking a tenner on some bloke they've never heard of. But the point is, Ricky Gervais used to be some bloke they'd never heard of. And if, when he did Rubbernecker at the Café Royal in 2001, Stephen Fry or Rowan Atkinson had been up the road doing a show in a venue into which the Café Royal would fit twenty times over, he might still be.

Comedy, in other words, is eating its young. The status quo is being maintained at the expense of the next generation. The Fringe needs to shrink a little, and costs need to be cut. The door-price for a one-hour show shouldn't be higher than a cinema ticket (and that's Edinburgh cinemas, not Leicester Square). Above all, the industry needs to broaden its focus and look for its stars all year round. And comedy fans on a budget should look to the Camden Fringe in August instead, where ticket prices are £7.50 across the board, big-name or not.